Brian MacDonald shares his story of how he survived trauma and drug addiction. (Aaron Hinks photo)

Brian MacDonald shares his story of how he survived trauma and drug addiction. (Aaron Hinks photo)

‘Trauma equals addiction’: Why some seek solace in illicit drugs

Part 2: Many pushed into addiction by ‘toxic stress,’ says White Rock psychologist

In the second part of this series, Black Press Media explores why some British Columbians are reaching for substances – at a time when overdose deaths have hit record highs – in order to find temporary relief or pleasure.

From a homeless person openly shooting heroin in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to an over-achieving radio broadcaster with a secret $15,000-per-month problem, in more cases than not, people who suffer from the illness of addiction have at least one thing in common – a history of trauma.

Langley filmmaker Brian MacDonald, 61, who by the end of the ’90s was in the throes of addiction, was consuming more than an ounce of heroin a month.

He puts it bluntly: “Trauma equals addiction. In my experience, it’s over 90 per cent of the people have sexual abuse in their stories, physical abuse, alcoholic families, so on.”

MacDonald recently revamped his award-winning documentary – A Ravaged Soul – that tells his story of addiction, and how it took him from being a successful media entrepreneur to trolling the Downtown Eastside looking for a fix.

The self-narrated documentary is a reflection of his life, where MacDonald explains the reason he reached for drugs was to cope with trauma he was once ashamed to talk about.

His first traumatic experience happened when he was three years old, MacDonald said, after his father was upset that he came to the dinner table with dirt on his clothes. His father picked him up and threw him headfirst into the bathtub, he said. Two years later, his dad left the family.

PART ONE: How COVID-19 has exacerbated the drug overdose emergency

By the time MacDonald turned 12, he had been sexually abused by an extended family member for two years. He started drinking and smoking weed not long after.

MacDonald kept his trauma to himself and raised a family, while running a successful media business and making a name for himself in the market.

After 25 years of having no contact with his dad, MacDonald looked him up and learned he was living in Seattle. Less than 24 hours after an uneventful meeting with his father, MacDonald tried heroin for the first time.

“A file got opened and exploded in my head in regards to what he did to the family, the grief he brought to it and all of that stuff,” MacDonald said, adding that meeting with his father brought the trauma to “the forefront of my consciousness.”

“Heroin is a very powerful drug. It just shuts your emotions down and shuts your physical pain down, shuts your anxiety down. I thought, honestly, for the first three months, I actually found a medication to help what was going on – the spinning in my head.”

As heroin’s ability to mask his emotional stress started to fade, he became trapped in a cycle of using and seeking, which eventually drained his bank account and led to the collapse of his professional life and personal relationships.

He wasn’t eating, he was frequently sick and fighting infections and had even tried to kill himself.

He was on the edge of death when he reached out to his mother for help. She managed to raise enough money to send him to a treatment centre in Nanaimo in the early 2000s. It would be his ninth and final attempt at rehab.

During 18 months in treatment, MacDonald said he finally addressed his trauma, released it, and forgave his abusers.

However, his resilience was tested a couple years later. MacDonald was in a car accident and required more than a dozen surgeries.

The doctor prescribed him pain killers.

Rather than become addicted once more, he was able to stop once his prescription ran out because the root cause of why he’d used drugs – his trauma – had been “modified.”

“The will to go back into it is just not there anymore. It really dissolved.”

SEE ALSO: ‘Lifeguard’ app launches as made-in-B.C. solution to help prevent overdose deaths

White Rock psychologist Jennifer Mervyn, who is a leader in the field, says every client she’s worked with who suffers from addiction shares a common thread – they’ve experienced trauma in their life.

She describes trauma as any stressful life experience, perceived or otherwise, that keeps a person’s nervous system hyper-aroused for six weeks or longer.

“Because that’s when we shift our baseline. It’s our cortisol, our adrenaline, our stress response. Once we have practised six weeks of having our heart beat faster, our blood pressure raised, stress hormones at elevated levels, they tend to not shift back down to a normal baseline,” Mervyn said.

Drugs allow people to escape that stress, she added.

“You want to run away and substances give us this chemical shortcut that allows us to get to that place really quickly,” Mervyn said.

“It’s never sustainable and it’s not long-acting, but for that short, brief moment, they can escape their body and their brain’s response to the toxic stress they’ve experienced in their life.”

Facing trauma head-on, whether through professional help or otherwise, is a critical step on the pathway to recovery, she added. It gives a person the ability to change the narrative of their trauma story.

The first time MacDonald talked about his trauma was when he walked into a police station in 2001 to report his experience of being sexually assaulted.

Halfway through the police-filmed interview, RCMP officers started to emotionally break down, they showed that they believed him and didn’t dispute his comments, he said.

Officers validating his feelings gave him “huge strength” to be more open about his experience.

“I ended up being this little Amoeba when I walked into the police station and I left 10 feet tall. It really psychologically switched, big time in my head, the shame factor.”

“I’ll never forget that.”

In next week’s third and final instalment of this series, Black Press Media explores how stress caused by COVID-19 could result in a wave of new people suffering from trauma, and how this might be prevented.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

From right: Brad Cameron, BCEHS superintendent of patient care delivery for Greater Victoria, with primary care paramedics Em Funk, Tyrone Trotter, Fiona Galvin and Peter Hill at the Leigh Road station. (Black Press Media file photo)
West Shore paramedics didn’t waver when faced with COVID-19 pandemic

B.C. Emergency Health Services personnel are this year’s Courage and Bravery Award recipients

February is Black History Month. (Photo: Government of Canada)
Camosun College highlighting Black content with research guide during Black History Month

The collection includes a range of works by Black authors and creators

Amy Morrison was surprised to find a note on her windshield for parking on a public street with no restrictions in south Oak Bay where she works. (Amy Morrison Photo)
Oak Bay resident uses notes to claim street parking

‘You must have noticed, we park in front of OUR HOUSE,’ note writer says

Debra Sheets, a University of Victoria nursing professor, is starting Victoria’s first Memory Cafe program for adults with dementia and their caregivers. (Photo: Debra Sheets)
Memory Cafe Victoria hopes to connect local dementia community

Adults with dementia and their caregivers will participate in weekly Zoom socializing and activities

Dr. Bonnie Henry leaves the podium after talking about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
COVID: 589 new cases in B.C., and 7 new deaths

No new outbreaks being reported Feb. 26

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents bill to delay B.C.’s budget as late as April 30, and allow further spending before that, B.C. legislature, Dec. 8, 2020. (Hansard TV)
How big is B.C.’s COVID-19 deficit? We’ll find out April 20

More borrowing expected as pandemic enters second year

The first of 11 Dash 8 Q400 aircraft's have arrived in Abbotsford. Conair Group Inc. will soon transform them into firefighting airtankers. (Submitted)
Abbotsford’s Conair begins airtanker transformation

Aerial firefighting company creating Q400AT airtanker in advance of local forest fire season

The Canada Revenue Agency says there were 32 tax fraud convictions across the country between April 2019 and March 2020. (Pixabay)
Vancouver man sentenced to 29 months, fined $645K for tax evasion, forgery

Michael Sholz reportedly forged documents to support ineligible tax credits linked to homeownership

Then-Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson looks on as MLA Shirley Bond answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
B.C. Liberal party to choose next leader in February 2022

Candidates have until Nov. 30 to declare whether they are running

After nearly 10 months of investigations, Mounties have made an arrest in the tripping of an elderly woman in Burnaby this past April. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Mounties charge suspect for tripping elderly woman near Metrotown in April

32-year-old Hayun Song is accused of causing bodily harm to an 84-year-old using her walker

British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives to view the Murals of Gratitude exhibition in Vancouver, on Friday, July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Death threats mount against Dr. Bonnie Henry, sparking condemnation from Horgan, Dix

Henry has become a staple on televisions in homes across British Columbia since January 2020

Most Read